Farmers pioneer new pastures in Eastern Europe

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The Independent Online
FARMERS attracted by lure of low prices and high yields are quitting Britain to seek pastures new in the former communist states of Eastern Europe.

Demand is so high there are waiting lists for those wishing to go on missions to explore farming opportunities in countries such as Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania.

A 12-person trip to Poland and Hungary - organised by the East European Trade Council (EETC) and due to leave Britain next month - has attracted interest from four times that number, and companies who specialise in finding land for British farmers say they cannot work fast enough to fill demand.

A recent conference run by the EETC and the Ministry of Agriculture was attended by 200 farmers.

Jan Cermack, who works for Adas, an agricultural advisory service, said: "We have a large waiting list. The problem is not with demand. It is finding the right farms.

"These farmers have the pioneer spirit. In the old days they would expand into New Zealand, Australia, Canada. Now the Communists have fallen there are opportunities just round the corner. Land is available here and it is much, much cheaper."

As land in Britain becomes more expensive, Eastern Europe's vast acres have become increasingly attractive. Although many states still prohibit the sale of land to foreigners, renting is cheap. In Britain, rents are about pounds 150 an acre; in Romania the price is pounds 25 an acre and just pounds 8 in the Czech Republic.

John MacGregor, of the Laurence Gould Partnership, an Edinburgh-based land consultancy company, said: "At the moment it is very difficult to expand in the UK. We have had a terrific lot of people interested in going East."

Dominik Fee is currently on a tour of Slovakia and the Czech Republic with his brother Martin. He already has a farm in Tipperary, in the Irish Republic, and is looking for a chance to expand. He said: "I'm either being very brave or very stupid, but it's a risk that has to be taken. Rent is so expensive at home now. To expand you have to go further afield."

He is interested in a property in Libceves, 45 miles north-west of Prague. "We're here to make money," he said. "I'm nervous because we have got money involved, and this is a strange country and a strange system."

Peter Bennett has farmed in Hungary since 1992. He said: "It's not all milk and honey. You need to have an understanding of the country you are going to live in, the background, the way they have transformed from a communist system to a free-market economy. If you have got that it can be a great opportunity."

Jeremy Elgin, from the EETC, said the farmers were not just in it for a fast buck. "They are frontiersmen," he said. "It's a very romantic thing to do. They're not carpetbaggers - a lot of these people think they can go over there and really help."

Although the bureaucracy can be daunting, British farmers say they are treated fairly well by the East Europeans. James Janoway, a third generation farmer from Basingstoke, Hampshire, has farms in Romania and the Czech Republic. He said: "One of the attractions of both countries was to get away from the creeping bureaucracy here. But I was wrong about that. The bureaucracy is terrible, although there is always a way around it."

Mr Janoway said he broke even from the farms in his first year. He is more confident about his future in the Czech Republic than he is Romania, where he farms in the Danube Delta.

He said: "The Czech Republic is a bit of a halfway house between here and Romania. Prague is a lovely place. But Romania is a bit of a culture shock, no doubt about it ... Everybody's outlook on life is very different from our own. They don't have a lot of entertainment or money. They live a fairly meagre existence.

"It is wonderful land though, flat plains that go on and on, you can see for 50 miles.

"They have deep black top soil that goes down feet. Wonderful land, it's just in the wrong place!"